Citizens not ready to get behind historic designation for Central Canal

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One would think it would be smooth sailing to get the 175-year-old Central Canal named to the National Register of Historic Places.

After all, the project not only bankrupted Indiana’s state treasury in the 1800s, but it also has carried water almost continuously for almost two centuries since shovel-dug by immigrants.

canal-factbox.gifAnd “there would not be a Broad Ripple if it were not for the canal,” noted Christine Carlson, who captains the Committee for Historic Broad Ripple.

But the canal’s new owner, Citizens Energy Group, has sunk the National Register effort—at least for now.

Citizens Energy took deed to the canal last August after buying the city’s water utility, but “after considerable internal discussion … at this junction is unable to support the listing of the Central Canal on the National Register,” wrote Yvonne Perkins, Citizens’ vice president of community relations, in March 26 letter to Carlson’s group and the Broad Ripple Village Association.

Perkins said Citizens is still learning about the canal and “is concerned about potential ‘unintended consequences’” of a historic listing. She did not elaborate and was not available for comment.

“We’ve only owned the asset for about five months. This is a decision that would be irrevocable,” said Citizens spokeswoman Sarah Holsapple. “Certainly we’re still open to conversation.”

Carlson acknowledged that Citizens is new to the canal, which today carries 60 percent of city’s drinking water to a near-downtown treatment station.

“They turned us down. But as far as I am concerned, ‘no’ doesn’t mean no forever,” she said.

National Register status would help further document the canal’s history and importance to the region beginning with its construction starting in 1836, Carlson said.

Such a designation doesn’t necessarily impinge on a property owner’s use of the land. In fact, the status could be useful in fending off unsuitable development around it by others.

Locally based Indiana Landmarks last year provided a $2,500 grant to Carlson’s committee to help underwrite the cost of the nomination to the National Register.

The group is seeking historic designation of the canal, its towpath and historic bridges that span it—about an 8-mile area that begins at the canal’s inlet at the White River dam in Broad Ripple and extends south to Citizens’ water treatment facility at 18th Street, near Fall Creek.

Further south, roughly between 16th Street and 11th Street, the canal was buried in the 1960s for construction of Interstate 65. It picks up again about a quarter-mile south and flows into the White River downtown.

But the downtown canal—now a concrete-lined channel known as Canal Walk—was altered so much over time that it no longer qualifies for National Register designation, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources opined.

Historic preservationists are mindful such a fate could await the upper portion in Broad Ripple if further intrusion continues.

“Let’s hope there are not significant changes that would render it ineligible,” said Connie Zeigler, president of local architectural preservationist firm C. Resources Historians, who was hired by the committee to take inventory of the canal’s features.

In the mid-1980s, Indiana’s Historic Preservation Officer stated that the upper portion of the canal would be eligible for the National Register, as did the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Urban Mass Transit Administration.

But since then the canal in Broad Ripple has been altered enough that parts of it may no longer qualify.

For example, the canal bank next to the Canal Bistro restaurant has been re-landscaped with curving sidewalks that descend down the bank and end at concrete walls built at the water’s edge.

Most egregious from an historical purity standpoint may be an older CVS drugstore on North College Avenue. Corrugated metal retaining walls were driven into the water’s edge, lining a parking lot for the store that obliterated the canal’s towpath. One corner of the building practically juts out into the canal.

There are a number of ambitions for the canal from a public-use standpoint. It’s already part of the city’s greenways program as a pedestrian path along the old towpath, stretching 5.23 miles from the Monon Trail in Broad Ripple south to 30th Street. Plans calls for extending the canal-side path to 16th Street.

To Citizens, the canal is first and foremost a vital water supply. From the Broad Ripple dam, the water flows south and across a viaduct at Fall Creek to Citizens’ water treatment plant north of 16th Street. Excess canal water goes into Fall Creek.•

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